Far from the ballrooms of New York City in the early '90s, pockets of gay teens existed in their own subcultures of chosen families (even if they don't use that language). The new movie Dramarama depicts one of those groups in 1994, and it's partially based on writer-director Johnathan Wysocki's teenage years in Escondido, California. The coming-of-age comedy tells the story of Gene, a closeted teen (played by Nick Pugliese) and his four Christian drama school friends, including Gene's crush, Oscar (played by Nico Greetham of American Horror Stories). The quintet of show tune-singing, movie-quoting nerds spend their last night together at a Victorian-themed murder mystery party before they leave for college. It was supposed to be a fun night of dress-up until Gene's new friend JD, played by Zak Henri, crashes the party with a reality check.
The movie gallops at breakneck speed. Resident prude Claire (played by Megan Suri), worldly Ally (played by Danielle Kay), and party host Rose (played by Anna Grace Barlow), reenact scenes from Clue, make literary allusions, and even quote the Bible with Gene and Oscar. Their dialogue is whip-smart with double entendres and references that are easy to miss and invite a delightful second viewing. Cinematographer Todd Bell's camera excels at utilizing the house where the party takes place; his camera whip pans to meet the character's witty dialogue and follows their search for clues.
The movie has a secret weapon, and director Johnathan Wysocki deploys his writing and direction with Greetham's Oscar. The young actor's toolkit is filled with a range of emotions unique to his character. When Oscar shows up to the party he's dressed as Sherlock Holmes and speaks in a merry English accent. Later, he makes a limp attempt at bro-ing out with JD. Eventually, Gene reads Oscar for filth during an argument, and Greetham gives us a snot-cry at levels seen from Viola Davis in Fences. Although the film is about closeted late bloomers, Wysocki teases the audience with sexual tension between Oscar and Gene. Their relationship is flirtatious but never crosses the line, and the tension becomes palpable in a scene early in the movie where Oscar undresses and Gene's mascara-blurred eyes watch in the bathroom window. (It's the first of a few times in the movie where Greetham shows off his sexy, chiseled frame.)
Dramarama allows its teens to explore their identities through, well, the drama of the stage, movies, and costumes. But unlike recent Christian, teen, coming-of-age films, like Stephen Cone's Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, the characters' revelations don't lead to tipping points of change.
(Warning! Spoilers ahead!)
Gene is still closeted at the end of the movie, and Oscar, who (to this author) is clearly queer, is deeper in the closet than Gene. What changes, though, is the group's dynamic: each is a little safer to be more real with each other. Contrasting again with Henry Gamble, when these teens go swimming in one scene, they turn the pool lights off for an extra layer of security from exposing their post-pubescent bodies. In Henry Gamble the teens swim in the daylight and with a pool light on, under the judging gaze of their parents. Interestingly, it's Ally, the worldly, proto-Natasha Lyonne type, who turns off the pool lights. Throughout the story, Ally knows everyone's truth before they can admit it, and like a true friend, she turns the light off to protect friends like Claire, who swims a lap topless when dared to by Oscar.
In the end, through fights and tears, JD's reality check is revealed by Rose for what it actually is: snark from a high school dropout who doesn't have a tight-knit circle of friends. That Gene and Ally remain friends with him shows that even he is worthy of redemption and bringing into the fold, even if he's never going to gel with their nerdy culture.
Johnathan Wysocki's Dramarama finally gives the closeted, gay Christian kids of America a story of their own. Our media landscape is full of schlock like God's Not Dead and sexy prestige dramas like Euphoria. But Dramarama is for the kids in the middle who are forced to see the former but watch the latter at night with their chosen family after their parents go to bed. They watch in secret because even now, like most queer people throughout history, many of us stay in the closet for our own safety. Wysocki's film welcomes them to grow at their own pace and acknowledges that we see and love them just as they are.
Dramarama is now playing at the IFC Center through September 2! For more information and ticket sales, visit the official IFC Center website here.
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